Juvenile justice advocates talk extreme sentences for young people

By: - October 22, 2021 6:00 am

Carissa McGee, Albino Garcia and Eva Buchwald were some of the many participants in the virtual panel discussion ‘Beyond Orange: Finding Solutions for New Mexico’s Incarcerated Youth’ on Thursday.

Carissa McGee entered the prison system at age 16 and wasn’t released until three months before her 25th birthday.

Now she is co-founder of a grassroots nonprofit in Albuquerque called Women in Leadership, and says young people lack life experiences that would otherwise give them an understanding of the consequences that come from their actions. When she was incarcerated at 16 after pleading no contest to first-degree murder and aggravated battery against a household member, she had very limited experience of the reality that her actions build her tomorrow.

McGee, now a high school basketball officiator, business owner and motivational speaker, was one of a panel of experts Pegasus Legal Services convened on Thursday to try find ways to keep children out of the prison system in New Mexico, and if they must be there, to serve them well.

The event was the first in a series of discussions that organizers hope will lead to juvenile justice reform in the state, said Bette Fleishman, Pegasus’ executive director. Fleishman moderated a discussion with numerous other organizations alongside Beth Gillia, director of the Corinne Wolfe Children’s Law Center UNM School of Law.

“I had to learn how to navigate the decisions I was making, and then reaping the consequences from that while I was in a punitive stage. I was already being punished for the choices I had made, that resulted in a negative outcome,” McGee said. “ … I started to build this false reality that if I make a mistake, that I didn’t even know I was making a true mistake, I’m going to be punished and it’s going to be a punishment far beyond what I could fathom.”

McGee said the system is not doing a good job of telling the truth that mistakes do not determine your life.

“To hold kids to their choices and the mistakes that they make, trapping them to that for the rest of their life really doesn’t benefit anyone. In particular, it doesn’t benefit this person and our community.”

– Carissa McGee

Denali Wilson, an attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico, is a Kellogg and Open Society fellow working to end excessive and extreme sentencing practices in the state. Wilson uses the metaphor of a river to describe the two major issues that incarcerated youth face: upstream and downstream.

She told the panel the downstream problem is the just under 100 people in the state who are in adult prison serving sentences longer than 10 years for crimes they committed as children.

“Providing relief to those individuals, people who have already been sentenced as adults and are decades into those sentences with no possibility of return to the community, that is a critical issue for our communities,” Wilson said.

The upstream problem is how those people are put into cages for such long periods of time. For example, life plus 41-and-a-half years in one case, or 91-and-a-half years in another, for people who were teenagers at the time of the crime.

Such lengthy sentences are the result of provisions in the New Mexico Children’s Code which make it far easier to expose children to adult sentences. Many states including New Mexico created a carve out in the law that automatically allows a child to be tried as an adult based on their age and the severity of their alleged crime, she said.

“These are parts of our law that are very explicitly vestiges of the super predator policymaking era,” Wilson said. “Jurisdictions across the country are reevaluating these provisions. They’re also providing retroactive relief to those who are already serving very long adult sentences.”

Eliminating transfer provision and providing earlier parole eligibility are good models for what could be done in New Mexico to address both extreme sentencing and the transfer provisions that make it possible, she said.

Dennica Torres, managing attorney for the juvenile division at the Law Offices of the Public Defender, pointed out that the charges filed against young people today are more serious than they were when she started defending young people 14 years ago. Back then they were petty misdemeanors or technical parole violations. Public defenders worked with judges, lawmakers and prosecutors to limit the kinds of cases that got filed in children’s court, she said. Now, most of the charges involve guns, weapons or drugs.

“So kids nowadays, while they’re not being arrested for misdemeanor charges, they are spending a lot more time in custody, because the charges are a lot more serious,” she said. “We really need to educate our youth about the dangers and the consequences of some of the decisions they’re making.”

She said it has become easier to get guns or drugs, or for young people to get into very dangerous situations where people get hurt or worse. Many children who are being charged for the first time are shocked when they don’t get out of jail because the older people influencing them are saying they won’t get as much jail time, she said.

“That’s not true,” Torres said. A New Mexican aged 13 or younger can get up to two years in custody, she said, and a 14-year-old can be held until they are 21.

“And if you’re 15 or older, you could get up to 30 years,” she said. “That’s your whole life, for a decision that you make in a split second.”

Torres said more education and more pre-adjudication programs are needed, like a Community Custody Program (CCP). There is already a supervision program for children released from jail pending trial, but she said the program doesn’t feel equipped to supervise children charged with more serious crimes, and they only supervise for 30 days.

“So the judges don’t feel comfortable releasing the kids on a program that’s only going to offer additional supervision for 30 days,” Torres said. “So we definitely need more pre-adjudication programs like CCP that can offer the judges the reassurance that these kids are going to be supervised adequately, (and) the community the reassurance that they’re going to be safe with these kids out in the community.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.